Pancho Claus is celebrating 40 years of spreading Christmas joy in Houston

Pancho Claus is celebrating 40 years of spreading holiday joy in Houston.

Since 1981, Richard Reyes — in the role of Pancho Claus (or the "Tex-Mex Santa") — has been an iconic holiday figure in Texas, especially for Houston’s Latino community. Each year, Reyes and his helpers, dressed up in zoot suits — along with the help of hundreds of volunteers, many of whom have been devotees of Pancho Claus since they were kids themselves — deliver upwards of 15,000 presents to families in need.

While the tradition of Pancho Claus has had several incarnations across the country, having been borne out of the Chicano civil-rights movement in the 1970s, it’s particularly popular in Texas cities thanks to Houston's Reyes, 70, the region's most well-known embodiment.

The bigger vision, Reyes points out, is for a company of players to carry on the festive tradition long after he decides to hang up his red coat. His team is already in the process of casting several Panchos to make appearances around the city this year.

"If Santa can do it," he says, "we can do it."

Video Transcript

RICHARD REYES: Feliz Navidad to Houston. My community started believing that I was Pancho Claus. Kids started writing letters or calling me or pulling at my sleeve at performances. They're losing their house. They're losing their car. There's no money for toys. Before you know it, we gave out 15,000 presents last year.

[MUSIC PLAYING] Pancho Claus was created in 1981. I invented the character. I was raised in a predominantly Anglo neighborhood. So I got interested in my culture, in my history.

So I started looking for places to find my roots, and I found a theater group.


So I wrote the play, [INAUDIBLE] it. It was The Night Before Christmas, but Chicano style. And what to my wondering eyes should appear, but eight low-rider cars all jacked down in the rear. And it has a lot of lessons about not judging people by the way they look and respecting your elders. And that's how it started.


Hospitals. We go to detention centers. We go to Christmas parties. Christmas Day, we go out with constables, sirens, low-riders. We load up about seven trucks behind us, cruise through a neighborhood.

We have people running up to the car and getting presents. We're giving out toys. A family over here, their house caught on fire. There's mom here, she's in jail, or grandma is raising six kids by herself.

They just feel so appreciative. And you can see their situation in their eyes. And they come up to you and tell you, "Oh, I'm so glad you came."


Do something good in your community. Take out the senior citizen's garbage can next store. Ask people if they're all right.

It really is not that much trouble to do a little kindness. And now it is the most important thing.